Problems and concerns around the issue of sleep, the child’s as well as the parents’, bring many mothers to the Pacella Parent Child Center. All of us who work with parents and infants and toddlers know the effects on the whole family, including the marital relationship, of a baby or toddler who cannot sleep. The problem is magnified in a single parent home where there is no partner to share the burden. Parents may be worried that lack of sleep or interrupted sleep is interfering with their child’s healthy development. They may blame themselves, each other, and the baby, and may feel that a baby who cannot sleep reflects on their capacities to parent. Very often, parents of a baby who does not sleep well feel that they must be doing something wrong. In such a state, parents may forget that their own sleep-deprived state can make them feel short tempered, irritable, or a host of other unpleasant feelings.
We are frequently asked for help with questions such as: should I sleep train my baby and at what age? Is it really ok to let her cry it out or can I go in and comfort her? How much crying can I stand and how much crying will be damaging to my baby? If I take him in my bed, just for tonight, will he sleep with me forever? Whose needs come first, mine or my child’s? My husband wants a family bed, but I don’t, so how do we work this out? How do I know if my toddler really needs me or if he is manipulating me? I’ve read all the books on sleep, and I still don’t know what to do, nothing seems to work…
Parents should know that every infant's initial sleep pattern and rhythm is unique and during the first weeks and months of life, parents and infants (some more gradually and others more quickly) develop a sleep-wake pattern. Some babies are “fussy”, which means that they have difficulty finding a calm and regulated pattern of transitioning between the waking and sleeping states. Whether or not your child is a “good” sleeper, almost every child has periods of disrupted sleep, which are stressful for parents. With toddlers, growing awareness of the environment and processing new sights and sounds, some of which are frightening or overwhelming, may make it hard to fall asleep or cause nightmares. Bedtime is a big moment of separation in the daily life of a toddler. The deepening attachment to parents and other caregivers can intensify the struggles around sleep and other separations.
In our parent-child groups at Pacella, parents have a forum to share their thoughts, feelings, and questions. We listen carefully to the unique cultural and family circumstances of each group member. Most importantly, we try to help each parent sort out how she would like to handle the sleep situation, and once this goal is established, we try and identify the obstacles that are making that goal difficult to achieve. These obstacles may be concrete and external—for example, a child’s illness or a parent’s schedule may be real impeding factors. Other obstacles are internal—for example, a parent may feel guilty about working all day or may simply feel the need to spend time with her child in the evening, making it hard to set an early and consistent bedtime for her child. Or perhaps the two parents have conflicting wishes and agendas regarding the sleep situation, which can lead to confusion in the child and the intensification of the struggles at bedtime. If, in addition, one or both parents have strong associations and memories (positive or negative) relating to how their own parents handled the sleeping arrangements when they were children, responding to their child’s feelings and behaviors around sleep becomes much trickier, because it is then more difficult to separate out the child’s feelings from their own. Exploring the feelings parents have and figuring out what the child’s experience is, relative to his temperament, style of attachment, and developmental stage, helps parents see more clearly what is really going on so that they can help their child (and themselves) more effectively. Deciding on and implementing a practical plan and routine for bedtime then becomes a more manageable task.
At the Pacella Parent Child Center, we do not believe there is a right or wrong way to deal with sleep. We try to help parents find the solution that works best for their child and their family.